Wednesday, November 30, 2011

$15 billion: The value of a box of Girl Scout cookies

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Summary: Rice University scientists demonstrate how graphene — a “miracle material” — can be made from just about any carbon source, including insects, waste, and Girl Scout cookies.

In the movie Back to the Future, all it took was some garbage and a banana peel to fuel a flux capacitor which sent Emmett “Doc” Brown’s DeLorean through time. While a device that converts any matter into such immense energy doesn’t yet exist, scientists can make graphene out of just about anything as long as it contains carbon, including Girl Scout Cookies.

To illustrate how graphene can be made from food, insects and waste, Rice University students recently invited a troop of Houston Girl Scouts to their lab to show them how it’s done.

Graphene is a “miracle material” made from a single-atom-thick sheet of the same material in pencil lead. It  can be used in the fabrication of anything from next-generation transistors to carbon nanotubes, and other exotic materials.

The researchers calculated that at the then-commercial rate for pristine graphene — $250 for a two-inch square — a box of traditional Girl Scout shortbread cookies could turn a $15 billion profit. And a sheet of graphene made from one box of shortbread cookies would cover nearly 30 football fields.

Whether it be cookies, grass, polystyrene plastic, or insects, the researchers made from it high-quality graphene via carbon deposition on copper foil. The work is published online today by ACS Nano.

The process takes about 15 minutes and requires a furnace turned up to 1,050 degrees Celsius flowing with argon and hydrogen gas. Graphene forms on the opposite side of the foil as solid carbon sources decompose while the other residues are left on the original side.

James Tour, a professor at Rice University said the Girl Scouts took away an important lesson from their visit: “They learned that carbon — or any element — in one form can be inexpensive and in another form can be very expensive.” He also pointed to diamonds as a good example. “You could probably get a very large diamond out of a box of Girl Scout Cookies.”

As commercial interests develop methods to manufacture graphene in bulk, the cost is expected to drop, said Tour in a release.

My question is: Will the research team retire early?

Christopher Jablonski is a freelance technology writer.

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